When history goes ‘wonderfully wrong’
By Josh Wilson
May 24th, 2019
It takes no small degree of presumption and vision, not to mention technical mastery as a writer, to give history an alternative ending, and make it real. Beautifully, vividly and grippingly real. Exhibit A in today’s lecture is Kim Stanley Robinson‘s “The Lucky Strike,“ a re-imagining of the atomic destruction of Hiroshima and Nagasaki, and reissued as part of the PM Press Outspoken Authors series.
Given that it’s Robinson we’re dealing with here (reading his novels was once described to me as “being cornered at a party by the most relentlessly well-informed person you’ve ever met”), the research is dense and meticulous — but it is demonstrated through scene and narrative, rather than clumped into dense expository blocks. Accumulated wreckage at the end of a runway on a South Pacific island indicates the fallibility of Wright airplane engines employed during the War in the Pacific. The inattention of a stateside welder turns one pilot’s instinct for showmanship into a different outcome for World War II. The detail of a B-29 Superfortress cockpit, down to the color of the buttons on the instrument panel, is more than set dressing. You’re looking down through the targeting crosshairs of its bomb bay at the T-shaped Aioi Bridge in the heart of Hiroshima, through the eyes of the man at the trigger. The beat of your heart, as a reader, is your shared sense of culpability.
Robinson’s characters have an almost documentary plausibility — alive in their milieu, but witnessed from an authoritative distance; if this had been a weird tale, we might be hearing a coolly detached voiceover by Rod Serling. More mundanely, perhaps, a newsman in the vein of Edward R. Murrow. It is the voice of History, dispassionate in its judgments.
The plot? Frank January, an Air Force captain, trying to make sense of the deep bitterness of his soul in wartime, keeps to himself on Tinian Island, as time drags forward and “hundreds of B-29s roar off the four parallel runways of the north field and head for Japan.”
January’s disaffection is immersive: we feel it, even though we are separated from it by the distance of years and by the clinical remove of Robinson’s prose. He doesn’t get along with his peers: Captain Fitch is “a bulky youth, thick-featured, pig-eyed — a thug, in January’s opinion”; and Colonel Paul Tibbets, who in our actual and unfortunate history would pilot the Enola Gay on its fateful mission, is arrogant, petty, and worthy of January’s personal disdain.
For his peers, the war is a job, all sweat and grinding routine. They’re full of bland, bluff machismo and the cocooned, patriotic insouciance of military mooks abroad — capable of scorching the life out of whole cities from 30,000 feet above the ground, but just as likely to be sipping soda pop at an all-American malt shop.
Frank January knows there’s something wrong with it all — something fraudulent, that requires credulity. He can’t quite articulate it. He knows damn well that war is hell and the conflict is real. And he wants to do his job. He’s the one who drops the bombs — and he does it well.
Yet he is denied his role in the war machine for trivial and vindictive reasons. He is idled, grounded, spending his days tossing pebbles onto funeral cairns as the conflict barrels forward around him.
And then something goes (as the blurb on the back of the book frames it) “wonderfully wrong,” the curdling in his heart germinates into something unexpectedly new, and history is remade. A plausible counterfactual branches off from our own well-trodden timeline.
The impacts on his peers by January’s choices are varied and profound, and the infection of conscience spreads from him via a fictitious social movement, amounting to a rebuke to the real Tibbits, who later in life expressed no regrets and claimed to “sleep clearly every night.”
Robinson explores conscience as a function of experience, self analysis, and a sense of a accountability. In a similar manner, we see the commission of atrocity as a function of the surrender of will — to command structures, with their sense of inevitability, and their balm of rationalization.
“The Lucky Strike” comes in a handsome and slim volume along with an essay by Robinson on counterfactual history, and an interview with the author conducted by Terry Bisson (himself no stranger to counterfactuals in “Fire on the Mountain,” his marvelous reimagining of John Brown’s 1859 raid on the federal armory in Harper’s Ferry, West Virginia).
While Robinson’s fame is as a science-fiction writer, no laws of physics are violated, stretched or re-imagined in “The Lucky Strike,” the technological innovations are a part of real history, and any suspension of disbelief required of the reader is merely a speculative “what if?”
It is a fantastical tale, however, full of twists of fate, and an everyman of a hero who muscles through fear, cynicism and despair to grab hold of history and, with the flip of a switch, change it forever.
Born in 1952, a Californian through and through, Kim Stanley Robinson grew up in Orange County, surfed his way through UC San Diego (writing his doctoral thesis on Philip K. Dick), and now lives in Davis with two kids and a beautiful scientist wife. He spends several weeks a year above 11,500 feet in the high Sierras. Not surprisingly, he’s a good friend of Gary Snyder.